Rickie Lee Jones never made things easy for the casual listener. To truly plug into her iconic albums of the 1970s and 80s, you had to push past off-kilter rhythms and vocals that stretched to the edge of pitch and comprehensibility only to be cornered by misfit characters straight out of Skid Row: C**t-finger Louis, Johnny the King, Eddie (with one crazy eye), and the ever-elusive Chuck E. “in love with the little girl singing this song.”
Those who got her vibe got it big. I’m confident I was the only kid at Scranton Central High School driving around in the family station wagon bearing an “I ❤️ Rickie Lee Jones” bumper sticker. It was a freak flag I had to fly. The tantalizing bohemian vignettes conjured on Jones’s self-titled 1979 debut album and 1981’s Pirates were portals to a world of cool and boozy independence that somehow felt liberating and off-limits at the same time. I wasn’t getting that same depth listening to Phil Collins.
In 1982, as I was cruising with my cassettes, Jones played four shows at The Roxy on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles as part of her Pirates tour. Some of that music showed up the following year on Girl at Her Volcano, whose vinyl I practically wore to the treads during my senior year.
The Grammy-winning singer songwriter returned to The Roxy last night for the first time since those classic dates, and you can bet I was in line with the curious late-night crowd. Jones hasn’t had the smoothest run these past few decades. Financial setbacks, boyfriend trouble, circumlocutions of faith and fame—it’s all on the record.
Fortunately, the RLJ sparkle is still intact. From the opening piano chords of “We Belong Together” from Pirates, the sold-out room was back in a dark-magic world where “Johnny the King walks these streets without her in the rain, looking for a leather jacket, and a girl who wrote her name forever, with a promise that we belong together.”
At 68, Jones is no longer the bad-girl ingenue of thrift shop rock. Now she’s a torch singer by way of what a new generation of hipsters calls “lived experience.” After a story about finding true love on the eve of 70, Jones’s heartfelt version of the Sinatra standard “The Second Time Around” took on new resonance. Likewise, “One for My Baby (And One More For the Road)” was recast for women talking at the bar. Jones brought out her sometime-collaborator Syd Straw for a slowed-down, grown-up take on Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids” that suddenly felt like an indictment of TikTok stupidity (damn those “show business kids making movies of themselves!”). Jones ended the night with “the one truly great song” she says her late father, Richard, wrote—“and one great song is more than enough for anybody,” she said, launching into “The Moon is Made of Gold.”
The curtain came down around midnight but the audience didn’t want to leave. Jones doesn’t always make it easy but it’s hard to let her go.